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Istanbul is one of the most fascinating cities in world: The bridge between Europe and Asia, a place filled with historic significance and culture, an exotic and eclectic blend of cultures and a rare mix of tradition and progress. I visited Istanbul twice and feel like I have only scratched the surface of the city – I can’t wait to return to see more of the city, and get a better feel for the ‘real’ Istanbul. The city has seen a huge increase in tourists over the last few years, and it is getting harder and harder to find some places that are not overrun by tourists though.
The list of things to do and see in Istanbul is long, so make sure to plan in at least five days to fit it all in. You can easily spend hours bargaining in the Grand Bazaar, and the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque deserve a fair amount of time. You shouldn’t miss a ferry ride across the Bosporus and enjoy the terrific views from Galata Tower. Explore the Sultanahmet, Beyoglu and Karaköy. Taksim Square, the Topkapi Palace and the Basilica Cistern are also on most people’s list of things to do and see in Istanbul. I would recommend staying in Ortaköy or Beyoglu, or anywhere in between.
If you’d like to get to know the city beyond the well-worn paths, I’d recommend at least another couple of days to go beyond the main sights – here are five off-the-beaten-path places I think you should add to your Istanbul itinerary:
1 Beylerbeyi Palace and Çinaralti teahouse, Çengelköy
First of all, Beylerbeyi Palace is on the Asian side, where most visitors (sadly!) don’t make it to. The Asian side has such a different vibe from the part of town that’s on European soil, that people who don’t visit the Asian side miss out on a huge part of Istanbul’s culture.
Beylerbeyi Palace is a small palace in the Beylerbeyi neighborhood, just north of the 1973 Bosphorus Bridge and built as an Imperial Ottoman summer residence in the 1860s. The palace can only be visited with a guided tour, but you won’t encounter many tourists here and admission is cheap (10TL). Just take the ferry to Üsküdar and bus 15 to the Çayırbaşı stop.
While y’re on the Asian side, continue your day by visiting a traditional teahouse in the Çengelköy neighborhood. Cinaralti is located right on the waterfront and offers unforgettable views of the old city.
2 Rustem Pasha Mosque
Even though Rustem Pasha Mosque is located right near the popular Spice Market by the Grand Bazaar, barely any foreign tourist visits the beautiful mosque which is known for being decorated with Iznik tiles. Built in 1563 by Ottoman architect Sinan, this is one of Istanbul’s best kept secrets, which can easily be added to your itinerary since you’ll most likely visit the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market anyway.
3 Sahaflar Carsisi (the book market)
The book market, Sahaflar Carsisi, still has the old-fashioned atmosphere that the Grand Bazaar had before it got overrun by cruise tourists on a regular basis. You’ll find it between Grand Bazaar and Bayezid Mosque. There are not only Turkish books here – you’ll find book shelves crammed with foreign books, novels, religious books and books that seem to be as old as the market itself. After pushing yourself through the masses in the Grand Bazaar, you’ll find this market downright relaxing.
4 Princes Islands
The Princes Islands are a bit further away (a 90-minute ferry ride each way), but well worth the trip if you’re looking to escape the tourist madness of the city for a while, especially in the summer months. There are nine hours in total, and you can cycle around the islands, or just enjoy a walk and a meal of fresh fish in one of the many seafood restaurants The islands are very popular with Turkish people, but you won’t encounter many foreigners, if there are any at all! Hagia Yorgi is an old monastery, and at 202 meters also the highest point in Istanbul, which makes for spectacular views.
This neighborhood is tucked away at the end of the Golden Horn, and mainly known for the Eyüp Sultan Mosque, a popular mosque with Muslim pilgrims. There is a bustling market nearby, and the square outside the mosque invites to just linger for a while with a gorgeous fountain and park benches. Head to the bakery across the road, pick up a snack, and sit down for a while to take in Istanbul life. Don’t miss the cemetery, through which you can walk up the hill to the Pierre Loti Café, which has some of the best views you’ll find anywhere in Istanbul.
Have you been to Istanbul? I’d love to hear your suggestions for hidden gems and off-the-beaten-path attractions!